Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Tough for Indonesia

Indonesia may have thumped Malaysia 5-1 in the opening group stage game of the Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup, but that was a long time ago. Malaysia has proven its quality with results — and blank sheets — against regional powerhouses Vietnam and Thailand.

The Philippines may have put in some sterling defensive performances during their surprise run to the semifinals but Malaysia has more in its locker. The Malaysians have potent scorers, such as Norshahrul Idlan and Safee Sali. Both are very intelligent players and very mobile, electing to play the whole width of the pitch rather than ploughing a furrow down the middle.

Given the estimated two million Indonesian guest workers in Malaysia at any one time, it is fair to say the Merah Putih won’t be friendless at Bukit Jalil Stadium on Sunday night when it steps on the field and it’s expected a fair few Indonesians, attracted by a first ever AFF Cup triumph, will be making the two-hour flight to catch the game.

While Malaysia will pose a far greater attacking threat than the Philippines, Indonesia will be confident enough in its own form and strength in depth. For example, against the Philippines in the second leg, coach Alfred Riedl had to do without poster boy Irfan Bachdim. No problem though. In came the hugely promising Yongki Aribowo and his performance would have given Riedl just the sort of headache a coach loves.

The flanks are the key area in Riedl’s strategy. Through the middle there isn’t a lot of pace, and striker Christian Gonzales likes the ball played to feet. That’s why the role of the wide players has been so important.

Oktovianus Maniani has had the fans on the edge of their seats ever since he joined the national team. Certainly there’s a big roar around the stadium when the 20-year-old gets the ball as fans sense he is always likely to make things happen.

Mohammad Nasuha and Muhammad Ridwan have also done their bit in spreading the play and getting to the bye line. Indeed Ridwan, a teammate of Oktovianus at Sriwijaya, has also chipped in with two goals. Nasuha, with his bandaged head, has become a defining image of this team built on flair but grounded in self-belief and hard work.

On the bench, Riedl has a couple of options to keep pulling wide. Arif Suyono, yet another Sriwijaya player, has been in and around the national team for a number of years now and made a strong impression in Myanmar back in 2008 ahead of the AFF Cup that year. Interestingly, Riedl has been using Arif as an impact player, coming on to replace Oktovianus with some fresh legs and providing yet more cutting edge to the Indonesian front line. With two goals scored and a couple of assists, Arif has done more than enough to hold down a regular first-choice slot on his own.

At the heart of the midfield, again Riedl has like-for-like options on the bench. Firman Utina is finally showing the talent we all know he possesses. There’s a touch of Roy Keane about the midfield dynamo. He tackles, he creates, he scores and he leads. All in one tiny little package.

And if Firman is for some reason unavailable then there would be no qualms in throwing Eka Ramdani into the mix. A younger Firman but no less inspirational and a folk hero down on the Persib Bandung terraces.

If Indonesia does have a weakness then it is at the back where defenders and keepers are prone to the occasional blooper. This makes Ahmad Bustomi’s job just in front of the back four doubly important. The Arema Indonesia midfielder is another player for whom international football seemed to pass by, but his consistent performances during the AFF Cup have impressed fans and critics alike.

It’s been a long time since Indonesia has boasted such strength in depth and cover for every position, just another contributing piece to the current feel-good factor among fans.

But for all their 15 goals scored and two conceded, Indonesia remains very much untested in one key area. Under Riedl they have played nine games and won eight, just that 7-1 reverse against Uruguay blotting the record book. But all the games have been played in front of passionate home crowds. They have yet to be tested in a hostile arena, unlike the Malaysians who have played two group games in Jakarta, where Malaysians tend not to be too popular, and that famous draw in Hanoi which secured their spot in the final. - The Jakarta Globe.

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